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Jun 23, 2016 | Commentary

Historically, refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa have been policed by an ad hoc mixture of security actors. The sudden nature of the refugee inflow emphasizes expediency, prompting the host state to draw upon pre-existing police or military units.[1] The policing force faces both traditional “soft” security challenges –preserving law and order– and “hard” challenges that are driven by non-state armed groups (NSAGs) covertly exploiting the refugee camps as sanctuaries and diverting their relief resources for military activities. This process is refugee camp militarization – when refugee camps become part of a military conflict in the country of asylum or origin through the recruitment of refugees into NSAGs, NSAGs using the camps as military bases, or NSAGs assuming control of a camp.[2] Countering refugee militarization is a non-traditional task for host states’ ad hoc security forces, being more akin to counter-insurgency than law and order operations.

The military nature of refugee militarization prompts host governments to seek a militarized response. The NSAGs are perceived as security threats, and refugees as willing accomplices rather than passive victims. This prompts heavy-handed repression and control policies, enforced by the security forces. The policing force becomes an occupying army, in turn generating negative feedback that creates a self-sustaining cycle of militarization, repression, and outrage.  When the Forces Nationales de Liberation used Burundian-populated refugee camps in Tanzania as cross-border bases for an insurgency against the reigning Burundian government, the Tanzanian government accused all Burundian Hutu refugees of complicity and passed the 1998 Refugee Act, banning all subversive action. [3] The wide-ranging definition of subversive action comprised anything that could be a political activity, including positive outlets of expression such as pro-peace meetings, and community gatherings. [4] Local police enforced the law through violent arrests that ignored refugee protection principles and resulted in lengthy incarceration without charges for those unconnected to militants.[5]  The raids drove refugee politics underground where it was more vulnerable to radicalization and the influence of militants, increasing militarization.[6]

This raises the crucial question of how can host-state security forces counter refugee militarization without reliance upon a heavily militarized and repressive response?

A model for success may lie in the composition of the security force. Following lobbying and funding by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Tanzanian government piloted a new security force that unprecedentedly integrated refugees into the camp security force. [7] Known as the Sungu Sungu, this mixed-gender community watch partnered with Tanzanian police to provide 24-hour patrols in the camps and leveraged their social connections to gather intelligence.[8] The Sungu Sungu model offers three primary lessons for how the integration of refugees into refugee camp security forces can improve their effectiveness and responsiveness to the communities that they police.

1) Integrating refugees enhances camp security force’s intelligence capabilities. Integration enables access to the camp’s social networks and structures. As social networks are key determinants in refugees’ post-flight behavior, accessing these networks is key to understanding the role and activities of NSAGs inside refugee communities.[9]

2) Integration positively influences camp security force’s respect for the refugee’s human rights and the principles of protection. By leveraging the force’s eventual reliance upon them for intelligence and mediating interactions between the force and the refugees, the Sungu Sungu were able to act as a check on the forces’ abuse of power.[10]

3) Integration shifts refugees’ perception of the security force from a force of coercion to cooperation. Empowering the refugees to contribute to their own security challenges the militants’ narrative of being the only force working on behalf of the refugees, and invests the community in supporting the host state to counter militarization.[11]

The integration of refugees into a community watch component of camp security forces offers a unique opportunity for reforming the policing of refugee camps. This reformation will be of continued relevance as new security incidents, such as ISIS’ terror attacks in Turkey, pressure refugee hosting states’ governments to address the militarization of refugees.[12] Utilizing methods that do not indirectly increase refugee militarization will be crucial to host states’ success.


[1] The Ugandan government utilized the army and local militias to police its Sudanese refugee camps from 1998-2006. Other states draw upon the national police service as Guinea did to secure Liberian refugees’ camps in 1998-2003.  Maya Janmyr, Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unable and Unwilling States, UNHCR and International Responsibility (Leiden; Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2014); James Milner with Astrid Christoffersen-Deb, “The militarization and demilitarization of refugee camps and settlements in Guinea, 1999-2004,” in No Refuge: The Crisis of Refugee Militarization in Africa, ed. Robert Muggah (London: Zed Books, 2006).

[2] As this blog is focused upon host state responses to refugee militarization and does not examine how host states militarize refugee camps, this definition is a refinement of the definition provided by Robert Muggah and Edward Mogire. Muggah, No Refuge, 7.

[3] The Tanzanian government’s position towards the Burundi refugees was complex, as they were comprehensively hostile to the Tutsi-led Burundi government, fearful of Rwandan and Burundian military incursions, pressured by a population that saw the refugees as threats to their security and well-being, resentful of the international community’s lack of support towards its handling of the refugees and also desiring of regional power. Durieux described it as “a government twisting in knots to respond to all of the pressures placed upon it.” Additionally, since the Cold War such accusations have been repeatedly leveled by host governments against their domestic refugees, including Kenya, Uganda, Guinea and Zaire. Jean-Francois Durieux, “Preserving the Civilian Character of Refugee Camps,” Track Two, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2000), 3; “Scapegoats; Kenya and its Somalis”, The Economist, (May 9, 2015), 44; Young Hoon Song, “International Humanitarian Response and Militarization of Refugee and IDP Camps in Kenya and Sudan”, Journal of International and Area Studies, Vol. 19:1 (2012),  120-130; Janmyr, 207; Gérard Prunier, Africa’s World War: Congo, The Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4] Edward Mogire, “Preventing or abetting: refugee militarization in Tanzania,” in No Refuge, 163.

[5] Jean-Francois Durieux, “Preserving the Civilian Character of Refugee Camps,” Track Two, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2000), 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Despite a UNHCR review identifying the Sungu Sungu as crucial in limiting the militarization of the camps while respecting refugee protection principles, the model was only replicated once more, in Guinean refugee camps. Mogire, 165.

[8] Jeff Crisp, “Lessons Learned from the Implementation of the Tanzania Security Package” (Geneva: Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit, UNHCR, 2001)

[9] Kristien Berg Harpviken, Social Networks and Migration in Wartime Afghanistan (United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[10] Sarah K. Lischer, Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid (United States of America: Cornel University Press, 2005) 110.

[11] Ibid.

[12]  Dion Nissenbaum, Ayla Albaryrak, and Raja Abuldharim, “Istanbul Suicide Bomber Entered Turkey as Syrian Refugee, Officials Say” Wall Street Journal (January 13, 2016).


Andrew Koltun is a project officer at the Centre for Security Governance.